Michael Mason, Director of Radio at the ABC was invited onto Mornings with Jon Faine on ABC 774 Melbourne this morning to discuss the future of the public broadcaster.
One of the reasons for discussing this topic now is the BBC’s Charter Review, which some commentators have used to raise the possibility of a similar review at the ABC.
The conversation dealt with the issues of future funding for the ABC, its reaction to emerging technologies and its relevance in the face of more expansive commercial content.
In the discussion, it was also pointed out that the BBC has licence fees, while the ABC is funded quite differently, with licence fees being abolished in Australia during the 1970s. Another ‘criticism’ of BBC radio is that it is too popular, but again it is a different situation in Australia – the BBC was Britain’s only radio broadcaster until the late 1960s, but in Australia, commercial radio has grown up in parallel with the ABC and is as strong a sector as the national broadcaster now, unlike in the UK.
Faine asked about how the ABC plans to stay relevant while increasing technological innovation drives a changing media landscape.
Faine: “Where do you see the ABC five or ten years further into the future? What’s next?”
Mason: “If you look at what’s happening with audiences, they’re busier than they’ve ever been and there’s more and more demands on their time and their ability to gather information…is changing really rapidly.
Our role in that is to really align with those needs of the audience. That means being able to be where the audience wants to be all of the time and be able to deliver the content they needs from the radio whenever they want it.”
Faine: “As the technology changes, can the ABC continue to do everything?”
Mason: “What we try to do, particularly talking about digital radio and streaming, when those platforms come up, we have to take a really hard look at what ones are going to deliver the best value to the audience.
In Melbourne right now, one in three people tune in through a digital radio or through the streaming service.”
When probed about the threat posed to the ABC on the back of the recent BBC cuts, Mason played down the issue, explaining that while the ABC was open to the inevitability of reviews, it was an entirely different entity from the BBC.
Faine: “They’ve just had a one third cut in funding and they’re sacking thousands of staff and shutting down some of what they do – shutting down television networks, radio stations and websites. Is that the future for the ABC as well?”
Mason: “I would say that our offer – particularly ABC Radio’s offer – is very different in a way to the BBC radio offer.
I think we fill particular audience needs that don’t encroach on the opportunities for those services to be provided by the commercial sector.
Of course we are always open to reviews that have happened in the ABC’s history many times but I think what we have to do is ensure that our content is really highly valued by the community.”
Faine asked if the ABC needed to spread its operations to programming like triple j, live sport and talkback (such as his own show), when commercial radio extensively covers these fields.
Faine: “In the views of some people, the ABC should only do on radio for instance, classical music, news radio and radio national – high brow stuff that you can’t get anywhere else – and stop replicating or duplicating what commercial operators are already providing. Any interest at all at senior level for that?”
Mason: “Absolutely not.
What we do, in a triple j sense and in a local radio sense is pretty unique in the radio sphere. Our ability to connect deeply with audiences about real concerns and genuine community points of interest is not covered by the commercial sector.
The kind of work that we do is pretty focused talkback that varies from market to market. We do talkback not to shock and probe but we bring it in to try and give a sense of what the community feels and thinks.
We want to see more growth out of those communities shaping content and stories. That’s the future for Local.”
Finally, Mason responded to the fears that with a current instability in senior ranks, the ABC would decline in quality by reinforcing the fact that the ABC’s structure and governance processes, with its charters and strategic plans, ensure that the ABC transcends structural change.
Listen to the full audio below.